Playwright Israel Horowitz makes an inauspicious feature directorial debut adapting one of his own plays, My Old Lady, for the screen. This drama is talky, stagey, and sluggishly paced in equal measure. Infused with a lively accordion score, My Old Lady is a gentle drama that offers nothing particularly novel about the twinned themes of legacy and family. The Parisian settings, however, are lovely.
Mathias Gold (Kevin Kline) inherits a fabulous apartment in the Marais from his estranged, now deceased, father. The property was bought 43 years ago under the viager agreement. This real estate rule means that Kline, the (now) owner, must pay the seller/resident, Mathilde Girard (Maggie Smith), to live there until she dies. That Madame Girard is 92 (though claims to be only 90 when asked) suggests he may get to claim his inheritance shortly. He is broke and anxious to sell the property. However, Madame Girard has no intention of dying anytime soon.
The relationship between these two conflicting characters—especially as played by the hammy Kline and the fussy Smith (she corrects his English)—could serve as an interesting two-hander. Yet there is a third character, Mathilde’s daughter, Chloe (Kristin Scott Thomas). Mathias encounters for the first time when he barges in on her toilette. A meet-cute it is not. They quickly fight over the property, which they both want to keep. When Mathias moves in, they each find clever ways of trying to gain the upper hand.
Of course, secrets are slowly revealed as the fate of the apartment hangs in the balance. Mathias discovers that Mathilde had a relationship with his father and that Chloe is having an affair with a married man. Mathias also confesses to a few painful episodes from his past.
Unfortunately, all this drama lacks gravitas. When the suggestion is raised that Chloe and Mathias could be siblings, it feels like Horowitz is manufacturing dramatic suspense, but he never generating any real tension. Much of the film feels forced, from Mathias’s smart-ass dialogue, which includes lines like, “I was born with a silver knife in my back,” to his interacting with stuffed animal heads—clunky symbols that are used as odd visual gags.
Kline is well cast as Mathias, and he obviously relishes playing some of the film’s juicier moments, such as a speech about self-esteem, or when he has an enchanting, impromptu operatic duet with a woman by the Seine. But his performance seems to keep shifting its tone. Injecting comic quips into Mathias’s discussion of his alcoholism might serve as amusing self-deprecation, but it is perhaps inappropriate to crack wise during a confessional scene about suicide.
In support, Smith is underused, but her early scenes allow her to shine. Thomas does her best in the weakest role, which is mostly one-note until her prickly character softens. Rounding out the cast, Dominique Pinon is a welcome addition as an English-speaking realtor who helps Kline (and the audience) understand the intricacies of the viager agreement.
My Old Lady opens today at the Ritz Five.
Author: Gary M. Kramer
Gary M. Kramer is a Philadelphia-based freelance writer. He is the co-editor of Directory of World Cinema: Argentina. Volumes 1 and 2, and teaches seminars at the Bryn Mawr Film Institute. Follow him on Twitter @garymkramer.